Legislating Language, Mandating Inequality

By James Crawford

This article first appeared in The WorldPaper, July 1996

English, the world's undisputed lingua franca, is anything but secure in the United States at least, in the minds of English-speaking Americans. To many, it seems that today's immigrants, unlike those of "melting pot" legend, no longer feel an obligation to learn our language. Non-English speaking populations have expanded by 40 percent in the last decade. Minority language groups Hispanics in particular have become the majority in a number of communities. Government has responded with an array of bilingual accommodations: education, voting, court interpreters, drivers' tests, even tax forms.

Some English speakers worry that Babel is close at hand. They fear that public services in minority languages, however transitional, imply a recognition of minority language rights and threaten the hegemony of English. Multilingualism, in turn, could sap Americans' sense of national identity and foster balkanization along ethnic lines.

Such concerns are driving a campaign to give English "legal protection": official status as the sole language of government. The idea is increasingly popular. Nearly 90 percent of respondents have endorsed it in some opinion polls. So far, 21 states have adopted "English-only" legislation, restricting to various degrees the use of other languages for public business.

Similar proposals are now being debated in the U.S. Congress, where they enjoy the support of Republican leaders. "English has to be our common language," says House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "Otherwise we're not going to have a civilization." Bob Dole, Senate Majority Leader and putative Presidential nominee, argues that "with all the divisive forces tearing at our country, we need the glue of language to help hold us together." President Bill Clinton, who once signed an English-only law in his home state of Arkansas, has yet to speak out on the current legislation.

Never before in its 220-year history has the United States seen fit to adopt an official language. Now, for the first time, chances are excellent that it will do so. If so, immigrants as well as indigenous language minorities may find their rights restricted. Their children could be denied access to bilingual instruction in public schools. Indian tribes could lose federal help in preventing the extinction of their ancestral tongues. Citizens who rely on bilingual ballots could be denied their right to cast an informed vote. Public employees and even elected officials could be forbidden to use languages other than English in performing their duties. While the legislation now pending prohibits discrimination on the basis of language, it does so for English speakers only.

Such sweeping changes, if enacted, would certainly face a Constitutional challenge in the courts, highlighting their threat to free speech and equal protection under the law. Nevertheless, Congress has chosen to hear only limited testimony on the aims and implications of "official English" or its rationale. Linguists, language educators, ethnic representatives, and civil rights advocates have been largely excluded from legislative hearings on this issue.

One opponent who was allowed to testify, Edward Chen of the American Civil Liberties Union, summed up English-only laws as "unnecessary, patronizing, and divisive." He noted that the vast majority of U.S. residents are fluent in English 97 percent, according to the 1990 census and most of the others are trying to learn. In cities like New York and Los Angeles, adult English classes have long waiting lists of immigrants seeking to enroll, owing to inadequate funding.

Meanwhile, English-only proponents are pressuring Congress to speed up assimilation not by providing newcomers more opportunities to learn English, but by making their lives more difficult with a ban on even minimal help in other languages. The U.S. English lobby recently criticized the Government Printing Office for producing 265 foreign-language publications over the past five years. It neglected to mention that English was the language of 99.94 percent of federal publications during the same period.

Contrary to melting-pot mythology, the United States has a long tradition of multilingualism. In 1890, the proportion of non-English speakers was 4.5 times as great as in 1990. Historically, government has served Americans in languages as diverse as French, Welsh, Czech, and Cherokee. A century ago there 600,000 children enrolled in German-English bilingual instruction, probably a greater percentage than in Spanish-English classrooms today.

Yet English survived, to put it mildly. Now, as then, it's the minority tongues that are threatened by a world language that gets more powerful all the time.

So the question arises: What really troubles the English-only proponents? Could it be that "bilingualism" has become a surrogate for other unsettling changes racial, ethnic, and cultural that politicians find dangerous to discuss? Could the attack on language rights be a stalking horse for more draconian measures? Among English-only sponsors, Congressman Toby Roth of Wisconsin is refreshingly candid, explaining: "I want all Americans to be the same. That is my mission."

No one questions the centrality of English in the U.S.A., only its exclusive franchise. Linguistic diversity is not only a fact of life, but also a potential benefit something other countries have been quicker to recognize. Hoping to enhance its competitiveness in the global economy and to promote tolerance at home, Australia recently adopted a National Policy on Languages. It aims to conserve and develop the language resources of immigrant and aboriginal communities, while encouraging English speakers to learn at least one other language deemed vital to trade and diplomacy.

Australians are hardly immune to the xenophobia that bedevils Americans. They simply understand that, in the case of language, guaranteeing minority rights can serve the national self-interest.

Copyright 1996 by James Crawford. All rights reserved. Except where otherwise marked, material from this web site may not be republished in any form and for any purpose including course use, electronic reserves, and Internet postings except by permission of the author at this email address or via PayPal links on this site. SPECIAL NOTE TO STUDENTS: No permission is required to quote from or paraphrase articles from this site in term papers, dissertations, or other course work not intended for publication. Of course, appropriate bibliographical credit should be given to avoid plagiarism. For further information, see my permissions FAQ.